The Parrot Lady Fights Boredom

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  9/26/2000

CAMBRIDGE - It doesn't take a philosopher to understand how boredom corrodes the soul.

Whatever you call it
- angst, ennui, or weltshmerz - the mix of solitude and emptiness is a gnawing disease for a gregarious species such as the human being.

Although such self-conscious despair has been held up by the likes of Descartes as a uniquely human distinction, other creatures experience the cerebral malady, especially domesticated animals, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say.

The problem for pets, like toddlers in constant need of a diversion, is that they can't just flip on the television, pick up a newspaper, or make a call to banish their boredom. When their masters leave, often locking pets in cages or small rooms for most of the day, the animals suffer a privation similar to prisoners in solitary confinement, researchers say.

Now, in a bid to blunt the tedium and loneliness they believe afflicts many of the 125 million domestic dogs, cats, and birds throughout the country, MIT researchers are turning to the latest cure-for-all-ills - the Internet.

"Many animals have a lot more intelligence than they're given credit for," said Irene Pepperberg, a visiting professor at MIT who is leading the research. "What we're trying to do [in the case of pets] is to use our knowledge of their intelligence to challenge them, enhance their environments, and reduce their deprivation when they're alone."

Pepperberg, one the nation's leading authorities on animal intelligence, believes most animals are unfairly denigrated as "creatures of instinct" rather than "sentient beings."

For the last 23 years, she has studied the cognitive abilities of grey parrots, proving that with proper training they can identify scores of different objects, recognize quantities, distinguish colors and shapes, and understand the concepts of "bigger," "smaller," "same," and "different."

The professor believes her work shows animals don't merely respond to stimulus, as behaviorists argue, but actually think. For Pepperberg, years of testing her 23-year-old parrot, Alex, confirm that birds with a walnut-size brain can do more than mimic or learn rote behavior; she said her parrots reason, comprehend, and calculate at the level of a 4-year-old child.

They're also temperamental like young children, especially in isolation. When Pepperberg leaves her parrots alone for too long, as happens when she locks them in cages at MIT for the night, they become withdrawn, pluck out their feathers, scream, and become recalcitrant and disobedient.

After so many years studying parrots, she's now setting out to achieve a lifelong goal, one she has had since her father brought home her first parakeet when she was a child growing up in New York City. It's among the main reasons why Pepperberg has spent most of her life studying animals: She wants to improve their lives.

Since moving to MIT last year from the University of Arizona, she has been soliciting ideas. In an ad posted on the Internet, she asks students: "Toys for children are now often computer-driven and interactive; might the same advances be applicable to toys for pets? . . . Can you devise something more interesting than a chew toy for Rover, a catnip mouse for Fluffy, or a mirrored bell for Polly?"

They have, or at least they're trying.

Perhaps the most intriguing pet diversion is called InterPet Explorer. The idea is to build a bird-friendly Web browser that enables parrots to use the Internet to play games, look and squawk at pictures of parrots and other images, listen to music, interact with their owners, and, perhaps, socialize with other parrots in chat rooms.

"We're still at the very early stages," said Benjamin Resner, a children's software developer and one of Pepperberg's research assistants, who came up with the idea. "The hope is that, if this works, it's something that will be applicable for other animals and enrich the lives of America's pets."

So far, however, the project has been slow to advance. The prime research subject, Arthur - a 2-year-old parrot who is also called "Wart" after Merlin the magician's nickname for King Arthur in the book, "The Once and Future King" - still pecks at virtual images of other parrots without understanding the experiment.

The design of InterPet Explorer is evolving. Over the past few months, it has consisted of a joystick that Wart can move in various directions, and a tough Lucite box with clickable levers. The goal is for the bird to manipulate the joystick with his beak, choosing from various musical selections and images displayed on a nearby monitor. Parrots require a liquid crystal display screen because the flickering of conventional television screens and computer monitors make it difficult for them to see images clearly.

The researchers are also experimenting with how to train Wart. They don't force him to use the browser, and the parrot doesn't earn rewards for choosing a particular course of action. "His motivation for using the setup are the intrinsic rewards of interaction, problem solving, entertainment, and diversion - much the same as for human computer users," according to the project's promotional literature.

"The initial goal is not only to allow him to pick his screen wallpaper or choose tunes from a jukebox, but also to teach him to use the controller to change his environment," the prospectus explains. "Once he learns how this Lucite box controls his environment, he has learned to interface with any software we develop."

The problem of getting Wart on the Internet, however, has proven more difficult than previously thought. It's not just a matter of teaching him to use a modified mouse; it's getting the bird interested in the content.

In recent tests, images displayed on the LCD screen have had little to no effect. Pictures of Pepperberg meant to please Wart have not provoked a significantly different response than pictures of an owl, a natural enemy.

"We're still in the stage of figuring out what they like to manipulate," said Bruce M. Blumberg, an assistant professor at MIT who is helping Pepperberg supervise the research. "Do they want video screens, or would they prefer more of a tactile surface to interface with? We're studying their play patterns, as anyone would do designing toys for kids."

No matter how eerily human grey parrots sound when they speak, some scientists reject the premise that animals can think - or experience conscious feelings like boredom. Yet Pepperberg and her fellow researchers say they have only received encouragement for the project.

"What we hear is more that we should push ahead," Pepperberg said.


Last year, the raven-haired professor, 51, completed the bulk of her life's work - a book published by Harvard University Press containing more than two decades worth of data detailing her parrot Alex's cognitive feats.

The research compiled in "The Alex Studies" doesn't just point out the intelligence of grey parrots, Pepperberg said; it serves to suggest how little we understand about animal cognition and how much more there is to learn.

For most of her career, Pepperberg has sought something akin to King Solomon's ring, which, according to legend, allowed him to communicate with all the animals in his kingdom. With the training methods she has honed over 23 years, teaching Alex to distinguish everything from colors to objects, she believes she has found at least an approximation to the fabled ring.

Now, she's looking to put the research to use. She recently flew Alex and her other bird, Griffin, from Tucson to MIT to join Wart in the research.

A demonstration of parrot intelligence early this month by Alex, however, reflects the difficulties that lay ahead for InterPet Explorer and any other interactive device MIT researchers design in hopes of easing pets' boredom.

Holding Alex on her hand and pointing to a jumble of blocks, Pepperberg asked him, "How many green blocks?"

"Two," the parrot answered incorrectly.

"No," Pepperberg said testily and prodded him again with same question.

This time, no answer.

"C'mon Alex, you're playing games," she complained. "Wake up! You're not being very cooperative."

After a few seconds of silence, the bedraggled bird, eyed the blocks and reconsidered his previous response. "Four," he answered correctly.

Then, repeating a phrase well known to the less schooled of his species, the parrot demanded: "Want a nut."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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